Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Book Review (#15 of 2008)

A long drive called for a good audio book. Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking fit the bill. Hawking is the famous physicist who also has ALS.

Hawking published this book in 1993, five years after he published his bestseller A Brief History of Time.

I wanted to post this review as soon as I could while I could still remember and sort of understand the gist of what Hawking was saying. The first 1/4 of the book is autobiographical, him explaining his upbringing and love for cosmology. The rest are a compilation of essays and lectures he gave to various groups over two decades.

Hawking's research has primarily been on black holes. Much of what we know/suspect about black holes can be attributed to him. I'm awed by the mathematical concepts that had to be invented to do the research that he and other physicists do. There's a point where mathematics becomes philosophical-- and that is the deep soul of physics and cosmology.

His lectures always point to the quest for the grand unified theory of the universe (GUT). This is the one theory that will explain how everything in the universe works. As the years in the lectures progress, it becomes obvious to me that the GUT becomes a sort of deity, Hawking has said if we can know it we "can know the mind of God." It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about predestination and free will.

Here's the main point I got from the book and Hawking's work: If the universe is unlimited in scope then the laws of physics were the same at its creation as they are now. The universe was not created nor can be destroyed--it just is.
However, if the universe is actually limited in scope, then the laws of physics didn't apply at its creation as they do today. Some outside entity must be responsible for its creation.

Hawking believes the former, and I'm betting on the latter.

Hawking invented something called imaginary time. Kind of complex to attempt to explain here, essentially imaginary time is the sum of all possible points in time. Think about alternate realities, all the possible variations of possible histories. If you look at things through the lens of imaginary time (which is a heavy mathematical concept) then things like the Big Bang no longer become troublesome singularities where the laws of physics don't apply, but become like any other event in history.

Interestingly, Hawking believed in 1992 that the GUT was only about 20 years away, and inhabiting other planets less than 100 years away. Looks like is probably wrong on those. Apparently, new research has led Hawking to change his mind on some of his beliefs, and published another book recently. I've read recently about a high-powered particle accelerator being built to test several theories in physics. One guy in Hawaii is actually suing to get the scientists to stop because he fears they will create a black hole here on earth. The work of that particle accelerator will have profound implications for all of science, however.

This book reminded me that in talking about Biblical creation you have to start at the very beginning--when the universe was created. I think most Biblical creation apologists are biology-oriented and therefore don't have the mathematical understanding needed to develop a good Christian apologetic against theories like the ones Hawking purports. There are a few really good redeemed physicists out there, however.

I've made it a point to read more mathematical and scientifically-challenging books this year. Many of the recent books I've read have referred to Chaos Theory, which is what I would like to read into next.


Dawny said...

Interesting. I'm taking a math class and the professor mentioned the accelerator just yesterday. One of the guys in the class is actually freaked out about it. :)

JTapp said...

Wow Dawny, if you're taking another math class that must mean you're gearing up for PhD school applications. And if you're dealing with stuff in that math class that's anywhere close to the math discussed in this book, then I really feel for you!